Festival

The Meredith Music Festival returns to answer, in three days and two nights, the yearning for connection. By Esther Linder.

Meredith Music Festival

Couches and doof sticks at the Meredith Music Festival in December.
Couches and doof sticks at the Meredith Music Festival in December.
Credit: Esther Linder

On the lands of the Wadawurrung people, two hours north-west of Melbourne, a paddock party that started 32 years ago keeps on kicking on. Originally held as a shindig among roughly 250 friends, the Meredith Music Festival’s annual three-day, two-night bender returned on December 9 with gusto.

Setting up camp among the 12,000 or so other festivalgoers in the fields and long grasses of Mary and Chris Nolan’s family farm where the event takes place (as well as its sister show, Golden Plains, in March), the atmosphere was already electric. This was the 30th year of festivities – the last iteration was in March 2020, just as the waves of Covid-19 began to wash into Australia and before the lockdowns that froze us into our homes and away from our friends. After so much time apart, a weekend of coming together again beckoned.

Uncle Barry Gilson opened the weekend with a warm Welcome to Country in the Supernatural Amphitheatre (the Sup’). He invited all festivalgoers to take part in the smoking ceremony, in a generous gesture that felt keenly prescient of the possibilities of Australia’s hoped-for Voice. After the ceremony, Uncle Barry’s band Meninyan began a powerful call-and-response performance that echoed across the crowd gathering in front of the single stage.

With no commercial sponsorships, the festival is almost exclusively BYO – alcohol, camping gear and, ideally, a couch. So many are borne in on the shoulders of punters that before long, the natural slope of the Sup’ is haphazardly furnished with hundreds of sectionals. They become the focal point for groups – whether it’s a few friends reclining for an afternoon set or the hotspot for a 2am boogie, the classic “Meet you at the couch!” rings out on the regular.

Another core piece of Meredith gear is a doof stick. Creatively speaking, this is whatever you want it to be, but bright, tall and distinct enough for your friends to find it amid the thousands of people cavorting in front of the stage at any given time. The recommendation from Aunty Meredith – the pseudonym for the omniscient organisational team behind the festival – is that it be no wider than a head of cauliflower, but kudos if you actually bring a cauliflower. This year, a delicate parasol decked out in fairy lights, a barber’s pole advertising free haircuts (at your peril), a jellyfish made out of an umbrella and papier-mâché, and a Mr Potato Head on a stick, were my favourites.

 

This was my sixth time in the Supernatural Amphitheatre, and I’m always astounded at the breadth of musical offerings during the three days. International acts are carefully balanced with local bands, and there’s a strong representation of all age groups and musical tastes. It’s the perfect place to discover new music and experience it in the open air, with plenty of space and opportunity to get a little weird.

Erika de Casier’s soft R&B set was a beautiful way to ease into Friday evening, and, some sound issues aside, cast an intimate spell upon many of us. Courtney Barnett followed, with the Melbourne legend playing to a home crowd almost a decade after her first appearance at the Sup’. Everyone clearly still knew the words to “Elevator Operator”.

Three-piece band The Comet is Coming was the perfect example of the emphasis at Meredith on getting a little funky – a wild stage show full of brass, jazz, electronica and stupendous lighting. Melbourne DJ pair Shouse kept the disco feeling going, with their underground hit “Love Tonight” supported by a stage-filling choir and a crowd who knew where it was at.

Saturday started with some festival regulars, including City of Ballarat Municipal Brass Band for those up and able at 10 in the morning. Everyone I spoke with mentioned the performance of Our Carlson, who took the opportunity to call out police violence and reject strobe lighting as ableist, and remind everyone of the lands we were gathering on, in a sometimes-unhinged narrative that tapped into the frustrations of the past few years. Punk bands such as CLAMM and Dry Cleaning kept the party going throughout Saturday’s heat haze, and I watched as friends ducked in and out of the mosh with ever-increasing energy.

Every time I’ve been to the Sup’ there is a golden-hour boogie that stays with me, and Nu Genea’s adventures in the land of Italo disco held up the promise. Rhythmic, cheeky, funky and upbeat, the band came all the way from Naples to keep our spirits soaring in the high UV.

After a prescribed disco nap on Saturday afternoon, it was back to the front of the stage for Sharon Van Etten’s headlining set. The New Jersey native moved effortlessly between her heavier, punkier songs and an upbeat rendition of the classic “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”. Her Elaine-esque dancing punctuated the sombre mood and felt like the perfect tribute to the bad and the good of our recent bittersweet years.

Tkay Maidza’s set was a festival highlight for me, with the singer-rapper from Adelaide flawlessly conducting the hyped crowd through a cheeky and energetic performance with excellent visuals and a camaraderie that felt homegrown. The evening’s long-awaited show from Caribou – Canadian composer and musician Dan Snaith – rounded out the headliners, with a performance big on feelings and synth that swelled across the entire festival. The Interstitial DJs Shorty, DJ Friday and Andee Frost were, as always, masterful at keeping the mood going between official sets, with a particular ABBA track sending the amphitheatre to another level.

Caribou’s DJ alter ego, Daphni, wrapped up the night for some on Saturday, while I went to sleep with the sounds of Derrick Carter’s 3-5am set in my ears, only wishing I had more energy to dance to the house-disco-soul tracks that boomed over the campgrounds. Others stumbling to bed much later than me commented on the quality and energy across the night, as Meredith’s “No Dickheads” policy kept everyone on their best behaviour.

Sunday morning’s packing and coffee routines were eased by the gorgeous songs and spoken word of Yorta Yorta artist Allara, which segued to the equally enjoyable sets of Michael Beach and Rubi Du. Most punters stayed on for the festival tradition of the Meredith Gift – a nudie run open to all. Punk band Smooch rounded out the festival’s schedule at a traditionally tricky time, as most of us headed back to camp to make the slow trek home.

 

This year reminded me, above all, of the special nature of Meredith – a place like no other, held together by a family of dedicated staff, volunteers and punters who know that keeping things clean, respectful and warm makes the experience more powerful. Wishing people a happy Meredith becomes second nature, as an acknowledgement of all the small and large connections that can be made as you immerse yourself in the festival.

For me, Yothu Yindi’s headline set on the Friday evening was the highlight of the entire weekend and epitomised the spirit of the place and people, with blazing vocals by Rrawun Maymuru and stomping beats reverberating over the amphitheatre. While I waited for their set to begin, halfway up the amphitheatre hill, someone I had connected with on a dating app over a couple of weeks during last year’s lockdown gently greeted me. “We’ve interacted virtually!” they said, by way of hello, and kindly accepted my apology for not getting back to them. “It was lockdown,” they said with a smile.

It reminded me of what we’ve all been missing for so long – connection and recognition, the essence of Treaty. Thanks, Aunty.

This article was revised on December 19, 2022, to correct the spelling of Uncle Barry Gilson's name and the lead singer of Yothu Yindi.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "Sup’ernova".

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